PITTSBURGH -- Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger isn't going to win the NFL most valuable player award. Aaron Rodgers will take that. Roethlisberger won't win the offensive player of the year honor, either. Give that to Drew Brees or Tom Brady.
If there was a trophy for grittiest quarterback, though, the unanimous pick would be Roethlisberger. When it comes to playing in pain, there is Roethlisberger, and then there is everyone else in this generation of football players.
You can break his nose. You can break his thumb. The problem is, no one has ever broken his will to win.
Even given his history of toughness, Roethlisberger outdid himself in gutting out a 14-3 Steelers victory over the Cleveland Browns on Thursday night at Heinz Field. After having his left leg bent in a way that it's not supposed to bend, Roethlisberger stepped up -- actually, hopped up, to be more accurate -- late in the fourth quarter to seal the much-needed win with a 79-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown.
"I just didn't want to let the guys down," Roethlisberger said. "We're in a tight race right now."
Roethlisberger's high ankle sprain forced him to throw off his back foot because he couldn't put weight on his left leg. He had to cut his dropbacks to two steps because anything else pushed it too far.
Many quarterbacks wouldn't come back with this injury. Others would and would struggle. Roethlisberger's mastery is such that you see him in pain but you wouldn't be able to tell by looking at the numbers.
Before the injury: 8-of-9 for 102 yards and one touchdown. After the injury: 8-of-12 for 178 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Roethlisberger's toughness, stubbornness and dedication to the team moved the Steelers (10-3) one step closer to a playoff berth and put them a half-game ahead of the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North race.
"I’ll always give him the opportunity to show what he’s capable of," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We know what kind of competitor he is. We know his pain tolerance. We know what he’s capable of."
Roethlisberger still doesn't know the severity of the injury and will undergo an MRI on Friday. "We’ll find out how bad tomorrow," he said. "At least it takes the pain off my thumb."
When Roethlisberger was injured with 5 minutes, 59 seconds left in the second quarter, he was brought down in such a way by Browns defensive lineman Scott Paxson that you wondered whether he would return this season, much less this game. It was one of those types of replays that you grimaced in pain as much as Roethlisberger.
His first reaction: "I thought my leg was broke. Honestly. It was one of the most painful things I’ve ever felt. They grabbed [the leg], and it felt like my foot was outside of my leg."
Roethlisberger hobbled off the field with the help of two trainers and needed to get carted off to the locker room. When the X-rays on his ankle were negative, all that stood in his way of returning was a conversation with Tomlin.
Here's how that went, according to the coach:
Tomlin: "The doctor said you’re good to go; how you feel?"
Tomlin: "You want to go?"
Tomlin: "All right, let's do it."
Roethlisberger came out of the locker room, threw a few passes on the sideline before halftime ended and limped onto the field. Even teammates who had seen Roethlisberger come back from injuries in the past couldn't believe what they saw.
"I was kind of surprised to see him come back in the second half," tight end Heath Miller said. "But when I step back and think about it, maybe I shouldn’t be. You know he’s going to be there with us if he’s able to stand on two legs."
Roethlisberger's return was crucial considering how ragged backup Charlie Batch looked in three series and how Pittsburgh clutched onto a 7-3 lead for most of the game.
Roethlisberger made his presence felt in the fourth quarter when he converted a third-and-20 by hopping up into the pocket and completing a 27-yard pass deep over the middle. He then appeared to throw a 24-yard touchdown to Mike Wallace, but it was reversed on replay because the receiver was down before crossing the goal line.
After the Steelers failed to score on the goal-line stand, Roethlisberger was intercepted on the next series. Like Roethlisberger, the Steelers continued to battle against adversity and gave the ball back to the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback on William Gay's interception in the end zone.
Two plays later, Roethlisberger flicked a short pass to the right sideline, where Brown caught the back-shoulder pass and took advantage of cornerback Joe Haden slipping. Brown raced down the field, faked out safety Mike Adams along the way and scored the decisive touchdown with 2:52 left in the game.
"You could see he didn't have the same mobility, but in his eyes, he was the same Ben," Miller said. "He was ready to lead us and get our offense going."
Roethlisberger never sat down after the injury, and constantly paced up and down the sideline so the ankle wouldn't stiffen up. When he got knocked down a couple of times after returning, he needed to get pulled up by his teammates.
"It feels like my ankle is about to explode," he said.
This is the first time Roethlisberger has had a high ankle sprain, which is surprising because he's injured nearly everything on his body.
In 2005, he fractured his right thumb and tore cartilage in his right knee. In 2008, he separated his right shoulder. In 2010, he broke his nose and fractured a bone in his right foot. Even this year, he's already sprained his left foot and fractured his right thumb again.
Despite his continued heroics, Roethlisberger won't win the postseason awards. But he might win something else.
"That’s the effort that gets you to win championships," safety Ryan Clark said, "and we have a championship quarterback."